New Scandal Clouds Illinois Politics

By: - September 27, 2005 12:00 am

When Democrat Rod Blagojevich told Illinois voters in 2002 that, if elected governor, he would “end business as usual,” the voters knew exactly what he meant.

He was alluding to the state’s history of legislators, judges, congressmen, aldermen and, yes, governors hauled into court on corruption charges.

But now, in his third year as governor, Blagojevich finds himself fending off allegations of wrongdoing.

In the same week Blagojevich was linked to a scandal involving a teachers’ pension fund, his predecessor, Republican George H. Ryan, was gearing up for a long-anticipated public corruption trial in Chicago.

The clouds swirling around Blagojevich grow out of a guilty plea by Joseph Cari, former finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, to involvement in an extortion scheme that targeted investment firms seeking to manage state pension fund assets.

According to a plea agreement filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on September 15, Cari and a member of the board overseeing teacher pension funds demanded that an investment firm seeking pension fund business hire an unidentified consultant. That consultant would, in turn, donate money to a campaign or charity run by “Public Official A.”

“Gov. Blagojevich and two top fund-raisers schemed to steer lucrative state pension deals to investment firms and consultants who agreed to donate to Blagojevich’s campaign, a key figure in a widening corruption probe claims he’s been told,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Two Chicago television stations, WLS-TV and WBBM-TV, as well as The Associated Press carried similar reports. “Campaign donors working to benefit a “high-ranking public official” may have been rewarded with a share of fees paid by firms doing business with the state teachers pension fund, prosecutors said in court filings Thursday. While the filings did not name the official, sources familiar with the investigation said it was Gov. Rod Blagojevich,” the AP said.

Blagojevich defended himself shortly after the plea agreement was released. “I have no involvement whatsoever in anything surrounding the alleged corruption at the Teachers Retirement System, and nobody close to me does either,” he told a news conference.

Opening arguments in Ryan’s trial are expected this week. Federal prosecutors allege that the former governor orchestrated sweetheart deals on leases and steered state contracts to his friends in exchange for gifts and money to his friends and relatives. .

Ryan’s defense team is composed of lawyers from the law firm of Winston & Strawn, which is headed by Republican James R. Thompson, the longest-serving governor in Illinois history.

Ironically, Thompson launched his career in Illinois politics as the federal prosecutor who took down another former governor, Democrat Otto Kerner. Kerner was found guilty in 1973 of accepting discounted racetrack stock in exchange for giving the track’s biggest owner preferable treatment.

When Thompson became governor, he succeeded Democrat Dan Walker, a self-professed political reformer who served between 1973 and 1977. Walker eventually went to federal prison for bank fraud that occurred after he left office.

Charles N. Wheeler III, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Illinois residents have a different view of government than in other states.

Illinois voters, he said, tend to view politics as a “marketplace” where competing interests, including politicians, vie for their own benefit.

But that approach only goes so far. One of the reasons Ryan was widely unpopular when he left office, Wheeler said, is that the charges he faces grew out of a tragic accident.

The investigation of Ryan’s office was triggered by the discovery that a truck driver who caused a highway accident that killed six children, had obtained his driver’s license with a bribe.

That shows the cost of corruption can be measured in terms of lives as well as wasted tax dollars, Wheeler said.

“The tolerance level is becoming less as people realize there are certain costs associated with having a government where everyone’s looking out for themselves,” Wheeler said.

The investigation of the teachers’ pension fund scandal is led by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, known nationally for heading the Washington, DC probe into who blew the cover of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

Fitzgerald currently has investigators pursuing corruption at Chicago’s City Hall in Cook County government as well as at the state level, said Cynthia Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. Canary’s group tries to limit the influence of money in politics.

The corruption that’s being exposed “is a train wreck that seems to be happening at all levels of government,” Canary said.

“Fitzgerald’s batting record is 1.000, but people keep doing it,” Canary said.

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